In SF, There Are Never Enough Police

In terms of sheer police power, San Francisco's police department is the envy of the Bay Area.

There are more than 2,200 sworn officers on the city's books, according to San Francisco Police Department records, of whom 1,380 are assigned to patrol just under 47 square miles of streets.

That dwarfs the police forces in Oakland and San Jose, which boast 735 and 891 officers, respectively. And when compared to San Jose, where 443 patrol officers serve one million people over 180 square miles, San Francisco is crawling with cops. (Oakland police did not respond to an inquiry as to how much of their force is assigned to patrol duties versus support roles – with one of the worst crime rates in the country, they may be too busy).

And yet, this summer, the Board of Supervisors called to beef up the city's patrol-ready force to more than 2,200 officers. This would match the force available as recently as 2009, before a bevy of retirements and budget woes, fueled by the Great Recession, put a dent in the thin blue line.

Supporters of a bigger police force, including Supervisor Scott Wiener, point to the city's daytime population — when tourists and commuters bloat the number of people here to more than one million, according to a city controller's estimate — as proof that there aren't enough cops.

While San Francisco has 239 police officers per 100,000 residents — a better ratio than Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and Austin — that's only about half the force per capita in places like Chicago and Philadelphia.

And as the city's “official” population continues to rise, so should its police force, Wiener says.

Still, more than 700 SFPD cops aren't on the streets — ever. This includes 188 sworn officers in the chief's office and in administration, as well as 152 officers on disability and 27 on suspension, plus the cops working at the city's Police Academy.

In total, the SFPD appears to have almost as many cops on desk duty as San Jose's patrol force. Observers like Wiener say this isn't a fair comparison, as both Oakland and San Jose are seriously understaffed (and, in the case of San Jose, the support-to-patrol ratio in San Francisco is better).

But it's also true that past efforts to hire more civilians to fill clerical and other support roles have been stymied. Jim Dudley, a retired SFPD deputy chief, remembers spending the first hour or two of every shift as an inspector cueing up reports, clerical duty that a lower-salaried civilian without a badge and gun could do.

But faced with either hiring civilian support or sworn police, “the mayor and the Board wanted to put cops on the street and not hire civilians,” he recalled.

Now, with things relatively flush, there's little talk of hiring civilians. There's also scant mention that despite having almost twice as many cops, Chicago has worse rates of violent and property crime, suggesting that there's more to the crime-solving formula than mere numbers of police and thieves.

But, as always, the SFPD can take solace in something: at least we're not Oakland.

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